What women want

The Asian Age.  | elizabeth thomas

Srishti Chaudhary, author of Once Upon a Curfew, talks about the reasons why she decided to set the novel in the Emergency period.

Once Upon a Curfew, by Srishti Chaudhary, Publisher #Penguin eBury Press pp.304, Rs 299

The book Once Upon a Curfew begins with Indu, the protagonist, talking with a textile person who is working on her wedding dress. As the book proceeds, Indu takes the reader through Delhi in the 70s, providing an insight into politics, cinema and lifestyle during the time. Srishti Chaudhary, who set the novel in the Emergency period, says it was a conscious choice. “I wanted to set it in the past. It would make for more exciting research and have an old world charm.”

She admits that the Emergency was definitely a tough and politically turbulent period, but that’s what makes the narrative exciting. “As in times of turmoil, it becomes more important than ever to stand up for what you believe in. Much like now, to be honest!”

What makes the narrative interesting is Indu’s initiative to set up a woman-only library where women can come and spend quality time in the company of others. The author, who studied creative writing in Edinburgh, says that the idea of the novel germinated in her mind during her studies. However, the basic plot was different. “I had to write a novel for my dissertation, and I chose a few themes for it: the library, the romance, setting it in the 70s, and it all just kind of came together. Of course, what I originally thought it would be, the novel is very different from that now. I initially set in 1971, during the India-Pakistan war, and then changed the entire thing, pushing the time period to the Emergency,” she says and adds that she did a thorough research to understand the period. “I made questionnaires and sent them to my teachers who lived through the time, watched multiple movies and read books, and spoke to people who lived through the 70s to get a general sense of how life was back then,” she says.

She goes on to say that though the book is set in the past, it is relatable to the new age audience as well. “There is flirting, banter, going out on dates, but in the form of letters, and less instant gratification because the means to communicate were fewer then.”

Srishti Chaudhary

In fact, Indu testimonies the author’s words. A determined woman and staunch supporter of Indira Gandhi, she thinks ahead of time and doesn’t shy away from exploring the world. She is not afraid of voicing her opinions. Even in her love life, she bravely takes decisions. “Indu is a bit of a snob and a bully, and throughout in the process of editing, my editor would ask me to tone down Indu’s sass. She’s mean, a bit stubborn in her ways, and really has her heart set on things that she wants. Instead of the demure and coy women that I saw depicted in the movies of the 70s, I wanted to create a woman who couldn’t be bullied into doing what others expect of her,” says the author. As Srishti puts it, a major chunk of Indu’s courage is drawn from her position in life as well. “She comes from money, is the daughter of the chief advocate to the Congress, but you can see it in the way she’s inspired by Indira Gandhi, that she isn’t to be messed with.”

Ask her whether it was difficult to shape Indu’s perspectives as she supports Indira Gandhi, who was heavily criticised for declaring the Emergency, she says, “Indu admired Indira Gandhi, being named after her as well, all her life. But by the end of the novel, she is disenchanted by her, seeing what the Emergency has done. It wasn’t that challenging to form my protagonist’s perspective: Indira Gandhi was a greatly admired woman in the time, and I imagine it would have been pretty normal for young women to look up to her, specially women who come from Congress families,” says Srishti, who talks about the importance of women-only spaces in her book.  

In one chapter, she explains it to her sister – the need of ‘me time’ and female friendship. “In my view, both are terribly important! I am an extrovert and I love going out and meeting people. But, I am a writer too, and at the end of an evening, I love to withdraw to my room, gather my thoughts and think about the day, and what tomorrow may bring. I need to have my own space for working, for writing, and have my thoughts to myself without external disturbances,” she says. “As for female friendships, there is nothing like it. I am in awe of the way that girls seek to help each other out, but alas, in mainstream narrative, women are made out to be catty, jealous, and double-faced,” adds Srishti, who put library as that place of solace.

The idea came to her randomly, as most ideas do, but because she is such a fan of Virginia Woolf’s seminal text, A Room of One’s Own, that she always has it in mind. “She also talks about the need for women to have a space of their own. Secondly, when I was writing this, I used to work in the library at the University of Edinburgh, and loved the fact that I could sit there for hours on end, so many resources at hand.”

Currently, she is working on her next book.  All she dreams is to write stories that would linger in the readers’ mind long after they finished reading them.